Worthy of Freedom
Duke Ellington and the Promise of Democracy
Listen to this episode of Red White Blues here.
On January 23rd, 1943, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra took to the stage at Carnegie Hall, dressed in black tie and tails. Sonny Greer, the orchestra’s drummer, raised his sticks and burst out a drum roll, building up to the whole band striking up in unison, following Ellington’s signal, to loudly intone the ‘Star Spangled Banner’.
While the concert was notionally a charity event to raise money for Russian War Relief (since the Soviet Union was, at that time, an ally of the United States), the idea had really been born in the mind of Ellington’s management. The program for the evening would be a kind of ‘Best Of’ the Duke’s two decades’ worth of music, a catalogue that by 1943 had attained legendary status internationally among jazz fans, critics and musicologists alike. Together with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington was not only a prominent figurehead of American music but to many he was an ambassador of Black America itself.
The centrepiece of the program, however, was a brand-new piece of music titled Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro. Quite a mouthful. And that’s because it was an ambitious attempt, by an ambitious composer, to present the history of Black people in America—from their arrival in bondage having been stolen from Africa, to their struggle as slaves in the South and their acceptance of Christianity; their role in the Civil War and the aftermath of a divided Republic; their cultural development as a new kind of American; and on to the part they played in fighting the US’s wars abroad, all the way up to the culturally vibrant Harlem of the present day (of 1943).
This programmatic “tone parallel” took the form of three movements, much like a symphony, with each representing successive stages of Africans becoming Americans—hence the title Black, Brown and Beige. Ellington is using his orchestra to tell a story. You might be thinking that’s a lot of story to fit into 49 minutes of music, and you’d be right. You might also find it a little uncomfortable that, as each stage succeeds the last and Black people become more integrated into the fold of American citizenship, that they become lighter… But we’ll come back to that.
The show was recorded on a glass master disc that didn’t see the light of day for another 35 years. This is largely because Black, Brown and Beige was savagely reviewed by critics from both the jazz and classical worlds. The latter found the piece lacking in coherence, a jumble of different ideas patched together without a unifying shape or form. Some classical heads also resented the intrusion of jazz—this merely commercial music—into the selective company of their rarefied artistry. From the other side, jazz critics thought Ellington was kind of selling out, abandoning the fiery spirit of jazz to court the pretentious, thin-blooded world of so-called art music.
Ellington seems to have taken the backlash to heart. He never performed the whole piece again and, despite making future forays into the western art music tradition, never again undertook a composition of this scale or complexity.
But in the intervening decades, critics have re-appraised Black, Brown and Beige, finding that its flaws, while not negligible, don’t detract from its overall expressive power or its success as a piece of composed, long-form jazz music conceived for a concert hall setting. The whole concert was finally released on a three LP set in 1977, with the critic and champion of Ellington’s music Leonard Feather writing a long essay for the liner notes. In that essay, he makes the case that in Black, Brown and Beige Ellington had achieved ‘the elevation of jazz to an orchestral art form’.
Black, Brown and Beige takes up two sides of an LP, and we’re going to hear my copy of it today. Duke introduces each section with an explainer, taking us through three stages of history in the development of African American citizenship, each lighter and brighter than the last. From the BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM opening the slavery-era work song and spiritual song of ‘Black’, which occupies the whole first side; to the vernacular blues of ‘Brown’, and its fife and drum music recalling African Americans’ participation in military campaigns that expanded the American empire; and finally, as Duke puts it in his introduction to ‘Beige’, the final section depicting contemporary Harlem:
many don’t have enough to eat or a place to sleep but work hard and see that their children are in school. The Negro is rich in education. And it develops until we find ourselves today struggling for solidarity. But just as we’re about to get our teeth into it, our country’s at war and in trouble again, and, as before, we of course find the black, brown and beige right in there for the red, white and blue.
Ellington here is using what the scholar John Howland has called the Africa to Dixie to Harlem narrative. Long-time listeners of Red White Blues might recall that we explored this in the second episode (which, incidentally, you can hear on our SoundCloud). You might also remember from that episode that Ellington was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the movement of Black artists and thinkers in the 1920s who aimed to highlight the unique and central contribution that African Americans made to American culture writ large. You can see that Black, Brown and Beige is the culmination of Ellington’s thinking in this respect.
In Black, Brown and Beige, we’re presented with a historical intervention as much as a piece of art. From the concert opening with the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ to the ‘struggle for solidarity’, Ellington embraces the idea of America fulfilling its great promise of democracy and human liberty, some sanitised version of Manifest Destiny in which Black Americans are central to the nation’s self-becoming. This music is programmatic in the deepest sense.
The program of Ellington’s “tone parallel” is presenting the history of Black America, one that wasn’t as well-known then as it is today, and using it to project an image of a future Black American: a fully integrated, urbane and thoroughly bourgeois American person. He’s taking a stagist view of integration, one in which Black people are becoming modern; and in their modernity, they’re becoming, in the uncomfortable words of the scholar Phil Ford, “worthy of freedom”.
While I don’t have the experience or authority to criticise Ellington on the question of African American civic development, it’s easy to see the underlying conception of freedom, “worthiness” and American civic identity at play here, a conception that I think hasn’t actually changed much since 1943. In fact, I don’t even think that it’s particularly American, let alone African American. Ideas about the nation, about “the people” and which people a piece of earth belongs to, and why—variations on these ideas were used to justify Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union (not even chief among their uses), which the concert premiering Black, Brown and Beige was ostensibly raising money to help the victims of.
The idea that a geographical place and its civil infrastructure can belong to some people who occupy it and not others, that you can earn it like a holiday or a factory or a medal of honour, is a thoroughly bourgeois notion bound up with the assumptions of capitalist property relations instrumental to ruling class power. Integration based on the assumption that oppressed people should struggle to become more like their oppressors, through hard work and gritty determination, could only be desirable as an alternative to the outright exterminism of the Nazi variety. There’s no shortage of examples of this model of civic identity being used to justify exclusion, even genocide, as often as development or integration—and it’s the very shape of whiteness. And that lends itself readily to criticism because everyone is worthy of freedom.
But I don’t want to give you the impression that this is anything other than a musical masterpiece, or that the Duke’s story of Black Americans becoming Americans is somehow historically inaccurate. The kernel of emotional truth in Black, Brown and Beige rests upon the fact that American history is largely the story of people producing a wealth never before imagined and sharing in almost none of it.
Like Duke, I don’t see this history as a tragedy, but rather as a commandment: make it different. Make it new. Become equal—not to the master, but to the task of doing away with him.